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Prince v. Jelly

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

November 20, 2017

JEFFERSON JELLY, et al., Defendants.



         Bridgitte Prince sued her former attorney, Jefferson D. Jelly, and his paralegal, Ruth Martin, for violation of her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Jelly and Martin have moved to dismiss on the basis that they are not “state actors” amenable to suit under section 1983. I agree that Jelly and Martin did not act “under color of law” and cannot be sued under section 1983. Therefore, I dismiss Prince's complaint for failure to state a claim.

         I. Standard of Review

         A motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim is designed “merely to assess the legal feasibility of a complaint, not to assay the weight of evidence which might be offered in support thereof.” Ryder Energy Distrib. Corp. v. Merrill Lynch Commodities, 748 F.2d 774, 779 (2d Cir. 1984) (quoting Geisler v. Petrocelli, 616 F.2d 636, 639 (2d Cir. 1980)). When deciding a motion to dismiss, I must accept the material facts alleged in the complaint as true, draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiffs, and decide whether it is plausible that plaintiffs have a valid claim for relief. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-79 (2009); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007); Leeds v. Meltz, 85 F.3d 51, 53 (2d Cir. 1996).

         Under Twombly, “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, ” and assert a cause of action with enough heft to show entitlement to relief and “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” 550 U.S. at 555, 570; see also Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (“While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations.”). The plausibility standard set forth in Twombly and Iqbal obligates the plaintiff to “provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief” through more than “labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (quotation marks omitted). Plausibility at the pleading stage is nonetheless distinct from probability, and “a well-pleaded complaint may proceed even if it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of [the claims] is improbable, and . . . recovery is very remote and unlikely.” Id. at 556 (quotation marks omitted).

         II. Background

         Bridgitte Prince retained the Law Office of Jefferson D. Jelly, a personal injury firm located in West Hartford, Connecticut, in February or March of 2016[1] to represent her in connection with injuries sustained in a car accident. See Compl., Doc. No. 1, at 3. Prince was represented by Attorney Jefferson D. Jelly and Paralegal Ruth Martin. Prince alleges that Jelly and Martin took no action for months and ignored her requests that the firm withdraw from its representation. Id. After Prince contacted the Connecticut Statewide Grievance Committee, Jelly and Martin “reluctantly withdrew, ” but then “committed a series of violations” in a “blatant act of retaliation” against Prince. Id. Specifically, Prince claims that Jelly and Martin “continued to contact USAA Insurance . . . as if they represent[ed] a client, . . . submitted several liens on [her] settlement, ” and “filed for a $2, 000.00 medical payment . . . without justification.” Id. at 3-4.

         On August 1, 2017, Prince filed a complaint in this court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See Id. at 2. Prince asserts that Jelly's and Martin's actions violated rights protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Id. at 3-4. She claims $250, 000.00 in “compensatory and punitive damages.” Id. at 5.

         On August 18, 2017, Jelly and Martin moved to dismiss. Mot. Dismiss, Doc. No. 8. They principally contend that they are not “state actors” and did not “act under color of state law in providing private legal services” to Prince. Id. Asserting that their “private conduct is not subject to First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment challenges under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, ” the defendants argue that Prince's complaint must be dismissed. Id.

         III. Discussion

         “Because the United States Constitution regulates only the Government, not private parties, a litigant claiming that [her] constitutional rights have been violated must first establish that the challenged conduct constitutes state action.” Fabrikant v. French, 691 F.3d 193, 206 (2d Cir. 2012). Thus, in order to state a claim under section 1983, Prince must allege “both that [s]he has been deprived ‘of a right secured by the “Constitution and laws” of the United States' and that the defendant[s] acted ‘under color of any statute . . . of any State.'” Lugar v. Edmondson Oil Co., 457 U.S. 922, 931 (1982) (quoting Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 150 (1970)). “[A] person acts under color of state law only when exercising power ‘possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state law.'” Polk Cnty. v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312, 317-18 (1981) (quoting United States v. Classic, 313 U.S. 299, 326 (1941)). Here, the defendants are subject to suit under section 1983 only if they “may fairly be said to be [ ] state actor[s], ” such that their “allegedly unconstitutional conduct is ‘fairly attributable' to the state.” Cranley v. Nat'l Life Ins. Co. of Vt., 318 F.3d 105, 111 (2d Cir. 2003) (quoting Am Mfrs. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Sullivan, 526 U.S. 40, 50 (1999)).

         “The determination of whether the specific conduct of which the plaintiff complains constitutes state action is a ‘necessarily fact-bound inquiry, '” id. at 111-12 (quoting Brentwood Acad. v. Tenn. Secondary Sch. Athletic Ass'n, 531 U.S. 288, 298 (2001)), and “there are a host of factors that can bear on the fairness of an attribution of a challenged action to the State.” Fabrikant, 691 F.3d at 207. For example, “the actions of a nominally private entity are attributable to the state” when:

(1) the entity acts pursuant to the coercive power of the state or is controlled by the state (“the compulsion test”);
(2) [ ] the state provides significant encouragement to the entity, the entity is a willful participant in joint activity with the state, or the entity's functions are entwined with state policies (“the joint ...

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